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Class I air status could influence projects far from reservation boundaries

The map shows the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation as the orange shape in the center, which is requesting that the air over the reservation be redesignated to Class I status. The circles radiating outward from the reservation show how far out the sphere of influence could extend, depending on a complicated set of factors including on the amount of new pollution that would be generated by a new industry or business and its distance from the reservation, as well as air stream direction. Contributed graphic

There are 108,850 acres of land within the exterior boundaries of the Fond du Lac Indian Reservation. More than half that land is forested, and 44,000 acres are wetlands. In addition to the nearly 1,500 Band members who make their home there — along with many non-Band members — the reservation is home to a wide variety of wild animals, 108 bodies of water and 96 miles of rivers and streams.

The influence of the Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa could extend far beyond the boundaries of the reservation if the Band’s request for elite Class I air quality status is approved.

Just how far is uncertain.

“We’re not committing to a particular distance,” explained Alex Jackson, the Band’s air program coordinator. “We are interested in protecting the resources of the Reservation and looking to be involved in [any pollution permit process] that would impact the Reservation.”

Most of the United States is classified as Class II air status. Class I status is generally reserved for national parks, forests, wilderness areas such as the BWCA and national monuments. States and Indian tribes can also apply for the status.

Currently, this part of northeastern Minnesota is designated Class II. If the redesignation to Class I is approved by the Environmental Protection Agency, Jackson explained, existing businesses would basically be grandfathered in at their current pollution levels (or whatever that was at the time the redesignation is granted).

Melissa Andersen Kuski, air policy planner for the Minnesota Pollution Control Agency (MPCA) explained how far out from Reservation boundaries the Band’s sphere of influence on possible pollution sources could extend.

Kuski said facilities located within 100 km of a Class I area are automatically subject to increment analysis as a part of their permit application. Facilities located between 100 km and 300 km are “potentially subject to increment analysis based upon an analysis of the ratio of their emissions to their distance from the Class I area.”

A map of the reservation (pictured) shows Minnesota and the surrounding states shows the 100 km boundary extending as far north as Two Harbors, east into Bayfield County, Wis., south to include almost all of Pine County and west into Crow Wing County. At 200 km, the lines go all the way into Canada, as far south as the Twin Cities metro area, West into Otter Tail County and east almost halfway across the state of Wisconsin. At 300 km, the westernmost boundary is nearly at the North Dakota border and extends as far south as Winona County in Minnesota and well into Canada.

While cleaner air would seem difficult to oppose, there are concerns that a Class I permit — which would set higher standards but basically grandfather-in existing industries at their current level (on a to-be-selected baseline date) — could have a negative impact on economic growth in the area and the entire region.

Jackson said the tribe is not reacting to any current industry or specific proposed project.

They just want to protect the natural resources on the reservation and have a say in any project or industry that would create pollutants at a level that could impact the Class I air status, if granted.

“Class I is a different treatment than the majority of the state, but it’s not special [treatment], in that the National Parks and the Forest Service have this designation,” Jackson said. “We’re asking to be treated the same way how [the government] treats federal parks and wilderness areas. We don’t think that’s unreasonable … and neither did Congress.”

With his last comment, Jackson was referring to the Clean Air Act, which was approved by Congress in 1977. Include in the Clean Air Act was a program known as the Prevention of Significant Deterioration (PSD), which was intended to ensure that clean areas of the U.S.A. remain clean and are not degraded by air pollution, while still allowing for some industrial growth. There are three classes of air quality: I, II, and III. Currently there are no areas designated Class III, which would allow for even greater levels of pollution.

“Class I status will allow the Band to protect our Reservation’s air quality for generations to come,” Fond du Lac Chairwoman Karen Diver said in a press release about the proposed reclassification. “The Band will be able to have a place at the table in reviewing permits for new sources and broaden our stewardship on environmental issues.”

If the Class I air status designation is granted, Fond du Lac would be the first Lake Superior Band to be granted a Class I air quality status, although five other tribes in the United States including Forest County Potawatomi in Wisconsin, three tribes in Montana and one in Washington have been redesignated Class I. According to Kuski, no other tribes or bands in Minnesota have declared their intent to seek Class I air status, but the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe has been considering the option.

Kuski added that the MPCA has been working closely with the Band and many different agencies and organizations regarding the air status redesignation request, including the following: the Department of Natural Resources, Department of Employment and Economic Development, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, the Departments of Health and Commerce and the Duluth Seaway Port Authority. The PCA has also communicated with State legislators, local governments, and the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, regarding the proposed redesignation.

Public comment period closes Nov. 10

Area residents, businesses and governmental bodies have a few days left to submit comments on the Class I air status proposal.

The public comment period was supposed to close Oct. 13, but was extended to Nov. 10. Jackson said last week the Band has received fewer than 100 comments so far, but he expected a number of governmental bodies to submit their comments in the last few days of the extended comment period.

Comments may be submitted in writing to the Band through 4:30 p.m. Monday, Nov. 10.

These comments can be sent via email to or by letter to:

Fond du Lac Band of Lake Superior Chippewa

C/O Class 1 Air

1720 Big Lake Road

Cloquet, MN 55720

More information and several reports on the proposed Class I air permit are available online at